• November 28, 2021

The Journey of Electronic Bottles and the Ocean Plastic Crisis

While some of the bottles traveled many miles over many weeks, others lost their ability to transmit their location. Still others seem to have got caught up in fishing nets. But that’s not a waste of an electronic research bottle—quite the opposite, in fact. “It kind of gives realistic data of what does happen to plastic,” says Duncan, lead author on a new paper in PLOS ONE describing the system. “Some might be taken out of the river, and some might get caught in fishing gear out there. So our misadventures also give us a realistic idea of what happens.”

Duncan and Davies actually cobbled together two generations of electronic bottles. Their first generation of devices, the ones that sailed along the Ganges, had plenty of cell towers to ping along the way, so a SIM card would do. But the researchers also wanted to see how plastic bottles might behave once they get to the ocean. So they outfitted a second generation with GPS. Here they took inspiration from their prior work tracking sea turtles: GPS works great on the open ocean, far away from any cell service. (Their designs are open source, so any plastic researcher can build their own, and even improve upon the system.)

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For both versions of the device, they had to figure out how to make an electronics-stuffed tube behave like a real piece of plastic trash. “It’s all about the center of gravity, really,” says Davies. They couldn’t, for instance, load all the batteries onto one side of the bottle. They also left an open cavity within the bottle, so the trapped air would give it buoyancy, keeping about half the device above the waterline and half below. Critically, the bottle had to orient itself such that its antenna pointed skyward, not toward the river bottom.

“We played a lot in buckets in our back gardens, floating the bottles, testing configurations, getting it just right,” Davies says. “The right thickness of wall—the right everything—until we got something that would mimic a bottle. So we threw another bottle in beside it, and they would float in the same orientation.”

Illustration: Alasdair Davies/Arribada Initiative

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